Containers for Bonsai

The container is as important as the tree in a bonsai design. Usually, growers select the pot after styling the tree, so the two harmonize in size, shape, color, and texture. Practical and aesthetic factors affect the choice of pot.

Practical Points

The pot must hold enough soil for the roots to develop over a year or two. It should be frostproof, with enough drainage holes. Bonsai containers are usually shallow, but sometimes you may use a deeper one to hold, say, a fruiting tree that needs plenty of water to swell its fruits. Never save on watering time by using a pot too large for the tree, as the roots may become waterlogged and rot.

Aesthetic Factors

In design terms, the pot must balance the tree's height and spread, so a dense evergreen needs a deeper pot than a delicate maple. See p. 125 for guidelines on size. Also, the position of the tree in a pot should emphasize the relationship between the two. In oval or rectangular pots, the tree looks most natural off center, set nearer to one side of the pot than the other in a ratio of 1:2. It can be roughly centered between the back and front of the pot. For balance, a tree with an extended lower branch to the left is set toward the side of the pot; a tree with a slanted trunk needs its trunk base set to one side of the pot, so the tree's apex is above the pot's center.

The interior of a bonsai pot is not glazed, but the outside may be glazed or unglazed (the color of the latter being that of the clay after firing). Earthy colors and an unglazed finish usually look better than lighter or brightly colored pots, though sometimes a skillfully selected color enhances a tree with brilliant flowers or autumn foliage. Some subtle ceramic glazes, discreetly lustrous effects, and speckling and crackle-glaze suit some bonsai.

Bonsai Container Styles

Well-stocked bonsai shops and nurseries offer a wide range of pots: many of the finest are made in the Tokoname region of Japan; ceramic-artists around the world also produce suitable hand-made pots. The basic shapes are round, oval, and rectangular: often, a rectangular pot is more formal than an oval. A pot with painted decoration would not suit a forest tree, which demands an unfussy, earthy pot.

Maine Pots
These tiny containers vary in size from 1/2 inch (1.2 cm) to 1.5 inch (4 cm). Maine pots are notable for their interesting colors and finishes which are designed to make them more eye-catching.

Oval, Matt-Glazed Container
The bold color and understated lines of this pot would dramatically offset a tree with brilliant autumn foliage, or a flowering specimen.

Oval, Unglazed, Gray Japanese Tokoname Pot
This versatile pot, with its formal, elegant lines, would work well with a whole range of different species of tree, from an informal upright pine to a heavy-trunked maple.

Oval, “Schilf”-Glazed Pot
The subtle coloring of this container complements the strong lines and green summer leaves of forest trees such as hawthorn, beech, and hornbeam.

Oval, Unglazed, Japanese Tokoname Container
Designed for group or saikei plantings, this shallow shape is perfect for creating the feeling of space necessary for landscape effects.

Oval, Unglazed, Red-Brown Japanese Tokoname Pot
This fairly formal container has crisp lines and horizontal detailing which visually reduces its depth. It would make a good choice for a Chinese juniper as its color echoes that of the bark.

Round, Glazed, Green Japanese Tokoname Ware
Pots of this shape are especially suited to upright, slender trees.

“Drum”-Style, Unglazed, Red Japanese Tokoname Pot
This masculine style of pot is ideal for rugged bonsai, such as a tree trained in literati style.

Oval, Glazed, Green Tokoname Pot
Because they complement most styles and species, oval containers are very commonly used in bonsai, especially on the trees with rounded outlines. The color and glazing of this pot act as a foil for autumn foliage.

Unglazed, Brown, Tokoname, Cascade Container
The height of the pot is all-important in cascade-style bonsai as it has to accommodate the cascading fall of the tree.

Rectangular, Glazed, Brown Pot
This fairly deep container, which resembles old-style Chinese wares, would work well with a heavy-trunked tree such as hornbeam, crab apple or hawthorn.

Rectangular, Unglazed, Tokoname Pot
Formal pots such as this are becoming less popular due to the current taste for informal bonsai.

Rectangular, Matt-Glazed, Gray Pot
A satisfyingly weighty-looking, shallow container, which would create a stable base for a rugged group planting.

Rectangular, Matt-Glazed, Brown Pot
An unassuming container that would not detract from the charm of a gentle, formal design.

Rectangular, Unglazed, Gray, Japanese Tokoname Pot
This restrained and imposing design would provide the ideal setting for a dignified old pine.

Unglazed, Gray, Tokoname Rectangular Pot
This pot would be suitable for an informal tree, but one with a thick trunk and a bold silhouette.

Unglazed, Brown, Japanese Tokoname, Rectangular Pot
A deepish, formal pot; a good choice for a tree which has a strong visual mass.

Rectangular, Gray, Unglazed Japanese Tokoname Pot
This is similar to the one above left but, less deep, so it needs a tree of less weight and mass.

Unglazed, Brown, Tokoname Semi-Cascade Pot
It is essential, when growing a semi-cascade bonsai, to choose a pot which will accommodate the downward spread of the tree. This example has a clean, strong shape and plain finish.

Bonsai Container Sizes

Keep the container in scale with the tree: an individual tree should not look lost in a large pot, nor overwhelm a tiny one. As a guideline, a mainly vertical tree needs a pot with a length between two-thirds to three-quarters of the tree's height. The pot's length should be two-thirds and three-quarters of the overall width of a strongly horizontal tree. When potting a newly styled deciduous tree, allow for the larger mass and spread when it produces leaves. As a reservoir for soil and water, a smaller pot needs more depth in proportion to its width than a larger pot does. Certain types and styles of tree demand deeper pots.

Visual Interest

Larger pots are usually subdued in color and texture, so that they do not dominate the tree. A smaller pot can be brighter.

How to Prepare a Pot

You must cover the drainage holes in the bottom of a container, so that watering does not wash away the soil. The traditional gardener's method of inserting broken crocks would take up too much room in a shallow bonsai container. It is better to fix small squares of vinyl mesh over the holes with twists of wire. Secure the wire on each side of a round hole, but diagonally across a rectangular one. Do not try to cover the whole base of the pot with a single, large piece of mesh as it will tangle in the roots and cause problems when you are repotting the tree.

It is wise to anchor the tree securely in the pot, especially if it is a young specimen that has not yet established a vigorous rootball, or an evergreen with dense foliage masses that are easily rocked by the wind. Run a single wire underneath the pot base and up through the drainage holes. After you have set the rootball in the pot, twist the ends of the wire together over the rootball. You will need more wires for a bonsai in a larger container.

Step-by-Step

  1. Cut a length of wire. Make a loop with a short tail at each end, with the space between the loops equaling the hole's diameter.
  2. Place small rectangles of mesh inside each hole. Invert the pot. Push ends of wire twists through each hole. Open out on the inside.
  3. Insert a long piece of wire through drainage hole at one side of the pot, take under base, and up through a hole on the other side.
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